Why Are a Record Number of Manatees Dying?
Breaking a record isn’t always an exciting event – take this year’s unusually high number of manatee fatalities, for example. Florida reports that at least 803 manatees have died off its coasts in 2013, alarmingly doubling the previous year’s death toll.
Though manatees have rebounded somewhat since being put on the endangered species list in the 1960s, the flurry of recent deaths is definitely a setback. With just 5,000 manatees living off the U.S. coasts, losing a full 16% of the population is alarming to conservationists, particularly if the trend continues in the years ahead.
2013 sets the record for manatee fatalities, at least for the previous 40 years that wildlife experts have been keeping track of such statistics. Prior to this year, 2010 held the undesirable distinction when 766 Florida manatees perished. That year, unseasonably cold temperatures were responsible for many of the deaths; baby manatees in particular had trouble withstanding the freezing water.
While the beloved sea creatures often fall victim to boating accidents, that hasn’t been the manatees’ biggest obstacle this year. There appear to be two main reasons for the premature deaths, the first of which is an increased presence of red tide algae.
Although it is not known why red tide algae increased this year, its devastating effects are readily apparent. After the algae inadvertently coat the manatees’ food supply, the algae’s toxins wreak havoc on their nervous systems, ultimately causing them to drown. The same neurotoxins have also put a dent in other sea creature populations, including fish, birds and turtles. Still, it’s been 17 years since even 150 manatees fell prey to red tide algae, so this year’s death toll is especially high.
Frighteningly, experts are unsure of what is causing the other half of manatee deaths. However, many suspect that it is a similar dietary issue that is causing the problems. Alas, because they are unable to identify the source of the health issues, scientists can’t do much to protect them currently.
If there is a tidbit that makes this story less depressing, it’s that most of the manatees that died in 2013 were on the older side. If the algae had been more deadly to manatees of breeding age, that would have had an even more monumental effect on the species’ survival moving forward.
One other bit of potentially good news is that the deaths slowed significantly in the second half of 2013. As Care2’s Kristina Chew reported, 600 of the 800 manatees died in the first six months of the year alone. These figures may indicate that either the algae has dissipated as of late or that manatees are now better withstanding the algae’s effects, though 2014 statistics will be necessary to validate such theories.